Key governance challenges for academy governance during COVID-19 – Part 3

The article is the third in a series of four blog posts on academy governance during COVID-19 published throughout May and June. The first post considered the challenges and opportunities associated with adapting to new government guidance for the education sector following the closure of schools. Whilst last week’s post examined practical ways to review and assess any changes to delegations needed within the trust. This week we consider and celebrate the contribution made by school leaders, teachers, trustees and governors during this time.

Leading and managing during COVID-19

It can be hard to explain in a nutshell exactly what working in academy governance entails. Indeed – as I know it happens to company secretaries and governance professionals across all sectors – colleagues will often approach the governance team saying ‘I am not sure if this is a governance matter but…’.

Governance involves the interpretation and application of legislation, regulations and guidance – as highlighted in the first blog post in this series. Governance entails working through policies and paperwork – as reflected on in the second blog post in this series. However, none of this truly works without the leadership of the board, committee members and executive team. It is the dynamics of their debate, discussion and decision-making that make governance truly effective. It is this topic that I wanted to reflect on in this post.

In celebration of volunteers supporting our sector

During this period - and particularly as our sector now enters the phase of wider school re-opening - governing boards continue to step up to meet the demands of the day, working in close partnership with executive leadership. In the June COVID-19 School Governance Update published by the Department for Education on 4 June, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson MP articulated this – stating that:

‘Over the last two months, I have seen so many examples of the tenacious determination of schools to find ways to care for children and staff, backed by practical and measured thinking. I am particularly grateful to you as trustees and governors for your dedication to the wellbeing and capacity of school leaders, who are under immense pressure, as well as your ambition to support your communities. Thank you.’

There are over a quarter of a million trustees, committee members and governors giving their time in governance roles across the sector, in maintained and academy schools, making a significant contribution to our schools.

Working with the changing shape of board and governor engagement

In conversations with governance professionals over the past weeks, we have discussed how the shape and form of board members and academy committee engagement is changing – and how we can best facilitate and foster their time.

Firstly, at an individual level, trustees, committee members and governors will have different commitments – whether in their professional or personal lives or both. Trustees who were previously busy travelling internationally are now home-based with more freedom in their diaries. Others will be taking on additional childcare commitments or working in sectors with increased pressures. As governance professionals, we can check in with governance stakeholders to understand how these commitments have changed, to make sure we tailor our regularity and forms of communication to the ways that will suit them best. This is particularly important when we are going to be asking more of them – whether through more regular updates, reviews of risk assessments, or meetings. The role of Chair is always important – but in these times is even more so as you work with your Chairs to decide your trust’s approach to board oversight, set meeting agendas and manage regular and ongoing communications.

Secondly, at a collective level, boards, committees and local governance are grappling with new issues. Trustees and academy committee members play a strategic rather than operational role – however in times like I have seen them start to support and challenge in new and more practical ways - whether skills-based (e.g. advising on approaches to budget reforecasting) to practical (e.g. securing donations of devices for pupils without technology at home).

Many governance professionals are also working to undertake a skills audit and/ or self-review of governing boards in this period – recognising that new skills sets around strategic risk, premises management and stakeholder engagement may be a priority. Organisations such as Academy Ambassadors and Inspiring Governance are working on our behalf to recruit volunteers into governance roles.

Finally, boards and governors are recognising that senior leaders, teachers and support staff are going above and beyond to keep schools open, alongside their commitments, particularly during school holidays. Governance professionals can work with governing boards to contribute to staff morale and wellbeing – whether this involves the board sending messages of support to staff to acknowledge their efforts, or planning board agenda items to discuss staff wellbeing. This can ensure the board and academy committees remain actively visible during this time.

My final blog post in this series will focus on how we can prepare for the upcoming academic year – what will need to change and what might stay the same for academy governance.

Anna Machin is a Director of Trust Governance Insight and governance professional working for several academy trusts and charitable organisations. She is an Associate of The Chartered Governance Institute and co-delivers the Institutes Essential Academy Governance training course.

The next Essential Academy Governance course is now online. To book a place on the next virtual course, visit here. The course is ideal for academy trust secretaries, clerks, trustees, governors and school leaders who strive for good practice in the development of governance within their trust. The course will also contain new sections on delivering academy governance during COVID-19.

Trust Governance Insight exists to support academy trust governance professionals across England through termly training sessions, briefings, mentoring and peer networks. To find out more, including how Trust Governance Insight can support you during this period, contact Anna at anna@tgpltd.co.uk.

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